It’s extremely hard (and incredibly difficult) to make a film about the 9/11 tragedies that doesn’t feel like exploitation. The wounds it caused in the American ethos are still only healing, and the best film made yet about that fateful day, Paul Greengrass’ little seen, but brilliant 2005 picture United 93, didn’t poke at those wounds; instead, it took the big cultural repercussions and traumatic imagery out of the equation, and just told the amazing story of the impromptu heroism displayed by the people unlucky enough to be on that plane on that day.
Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, Stephan Daldry’s tear-geyser of a drama about a boy who loses his father in the World Trade Center, doesn’t have that kind of barebones, gut-shot simplicity. Its most ambitious and underhanded trick is to boil down our collective post-9/11 confusions, depressions and anxieties into the innocence of a lonely ten-year-old—and then feed them back to us like the concentrated, bitter elixir of our decade’s old agonies.
Those involved in the production (including Gump screenwriter Eric Roth) probably had the best intentions, hoping that their film would serve as some kind of remedy when it actually comes off as a strategically designed placebo of sugary sentiment. To be fair, the film does begin with the most haunting opening few minutes I’ve seen all year. Against a cloudless blue sky, we see what looks like a businessman free falling through the air, but we only see him in obscure fragments and out-of-focus close-ups. A brown leather shoe, a suit coat rippling in the wind, a limb or a torso rotating loosely, serenely: We’re never given the complete image and we never see his face, but we have a good idea what we’re watching, even if it’s not explicitly stated.
The sequence is chilling because of its dreamlike ambiguity; those few minutes are about the extent of Daldry’s grace in Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close. It’s one year after “the worst day”, and Oscar (Thomas Horn), a quizzical and neurotic prepubescent New Yorker, is still coping with his father’s demise. We meet his dad, Thomas (Tom Hanks), in flashbacks and see that their sweet rapport revolved around a treasure hunt game called Reconnaissance Expedition. Hanks is often considered the quintessential modern everyman and he inherently captures Thomas’ essential ordinariness. Furthermore, his relationship with his anxious and possibly Asperger’s son is heartwarming in its patience and understanding.
The editing by Clair Simpson does an effective job of telling the story non-linearly. We witness the events surrounding Thomas’ death only in sporadic memories: Oscar slowly, obliviously saunters home after his school’s early release to find the several frantic messages Thomas left on his home answering machine while trapped inside the burning tower. The trajectory of the plot, however, involves Oscar’s citywide inquiry into the owner of a key he finds in his late father’s closet. It’s in a small yellow envelope marked with the name Black, so Oscar, recalling the adventures he once enjoyed with his dad, sets out on a journey to visit every Black in New York City in an effort to find the lock that fits the key.
Oscar is hoping that the endeavor will bring him closer to his deceased father, but it really brings him closer to the people of New York—the nameless millions that share his sadness. There’s the couple struggling to save their marriage (played by Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright) and then there’s the mute tenant across the street (Max Von Sydow) with the mysterious past. Instead of talking, he writes all his thoughts down in a little notebook.
Daldry, the expert string-puller who gave us Billy Elliot and The Reader, appreciates the power of a big emotional payoff. If applied correctly—like the Swan Lake performance at the end of Billy Elliot—it can make the difference between a good film and a great one. In Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close, Daldry, foolishly, piles on several, one on top of the next. They’re all so manipulatively gushy and ultimate that the movie starts to drag and, worse, it starts to feel like the Weepy equivalent of Transformers—an extended emotional climax that numbs your feelings more effectively than it moves them.
Moreover, Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close insists on returning to that terrible day over and over. Daldry rests on the tragedy instead of moving passed it. Now that I’m on the subject: Why does this movie need to be about 9/11 in the first place? Can’t it be about a boy grieving his father’s death from any other cause, and discovering that he lives in a city where everyone is grieving, together? If people want to make that 9/11 connection themselves, let them, but don’t hammer them with images of collapsing towers and falling bodies.
The story of a young boy coping with death and loss and confusion should always have been dramatic enough, especially with performances as lovely as the ones in this movie. Thomas Horn, with sky blue eyes, a malleable mop of sandy brown hair and a boyish, high-pitched voice, gives an emotionally dexterous and extensive performance that displays range far beyond his years. Max Von Sydow, in an absolutely silent role, conveys a long life of heartbreak and regret with the softest and subtlest facial ticks and mannerisms. Oh! Sandra Bullock’s in this movie, too, as Oscar’s perpetually absent mother, who never thinks to put her despondent and flagellating son into therapy. No need. Just let him wander the New York streets alone, instead.By the time Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close reaches its cheap and unearned catharsis, you might think you were touched. But don’t be fooled. This is charlatanic human drama, a study in audience manipulation, really. Daldry’s movie is as emotionally unhinged and out-of-control as its characters.